Purveyors of Perk

Financial matters are of little pressing concern to the members of Phuz. That much is evident simply from glancing around the Houston band's high-end townhouse headquarters in West U. Though all five members of the group are milling about inside, not a single car clutters the driveway, and the garage doors are locked tight. From the outside, there's not so much as a trace of a starving musician's existence -- not a beer bottle, not a scrap of litter, not a sliver of peeling paint, not a blade of grass out of place. No amplifiers scream, no thundering low-end rattles the windows of the immaculate white three-story structure. Actually, it looks as if no one's been home for months.

Inside, the trappings are no less sterile: a spotless carpet; minimalist decorative touches; a well-scrubbed kitchen; modern, overstuffed living-room furniture; an impressive entertainment center from which the sounds of early Miles Davis delicately waft. Again, barring the warm stereo, it's as if no one's crashed here for months. The mood is polite but decidedly awkward as Phuz's beaming, clean-cut membership converges in the living area to discuss band business with an outsider. The group offers me coffee, and after taking a sip, I thoughtlessly place the mug on the fine wood coffee table sans coaster. I feel guilty; curiously, there are no strained looks, no gasps.

Literally and figuratively, this is the world Phuz inhabits, a world in which order and good taste prevail and where art doesn't have to be about junk food, bong-water stains and bad body odor to be worthwhile. And judging from the perky jazz/pop fusion premise of the quintet's debut CD, Life Equation, quality music doesn't have to stoop to viscous and unsavory levels to make its point; in fact, it doesn't even have to rock, particularly. Rather, it can proceed along politely, slowing on occasion to take a slug of spring water or wipe its brow with a fine chamois -- or, perhaps, congratulate itself on being so remarkably well adjusted. In short, Phuz is the groove-band equivalent of a mood-elevating dietary supplement.

"People just want to blow off steam; they just want to rock out, and that's fine," says Phuz singer Kevin Courtney, a graphic artist whose detailed, fairy-tale-like sketches adorn the liner notes of Life Equation. "But that's certainly not the only type of human experience."

In fairness, only a portion of Phuz actually resides in this upwardly mobile Valhalla. Band cofounder and guitarist Ken Sarmiento, for instance, lives in Webster, near where he grew up. But everyone in the group -- which also includes Dea Chincuanco (vocals) and brothers Edwin and Edward Casapao (bass and drums, respectively) -- spends a lot of hours here. They practice upstairs in a well-insulated space; they watch TV, listen to jazz and socialize downstairs. And while parties at Phuz headquarters aren't out of the question (they just had a 25th birthday party for Edwin), one gets the impression that sex orgies, beer-funnel relays and vomit throwing are not on the menu. But good clean fun is: "You just feel energized, enriched, alive / Yes that's the exact word for it -- alive," sings Courtney on "7/8ths of a Molecule," the politely jammy, mildly soulful declaration of deep-seated contentment that leads off Life Equation.

To some degree, religion plays a role in Phuz's overbearing sense of well-being, as the big guy's saving grace comes up in a few instances on Life Equation. But Phuz isn't pushing Christianity as much as it is celebrating the lure of positivity -- the sort of relentlessly upbeat, up-with-creation outlook that is bound to make Houston's hard-core indie sector wince. After all, in this city, there's no forgiving a line like "Trees are dancing in the wind / And the bird's floating feather / Spring showers and April showers."

"We've been around long enough to know what the scene is like in Houston," says Sarmiento. "We really never had the media's support; we don't judge ourselves [that way]. But we've been around long enough to know that we've made a difference for the people who have seen us."

For the most part, Phuz has been shielded from the harsher effects of the outside world by an army of well-connected artist friends and associates. What else would explain the band's ability to hang around the scene for the last seven years? (It took them three years to assemble Life Equation.) Phuz is part of the Houstonpolyglot Records collective, which also includes experimental groove gurus the Jeepneys, Film Star and Lavendula (the atmospheric pet project of label founder Al Guzman). Those three bands are decidedly more creative, but Phuz is the most accessible of the group, thanks to its relatively linear approach to songwriting.

"For the most part, I think our sound is just kind of pleasant," says Edwin Casapao matter-of-factly. "Nice stuff to listen to."

Phuz was formed in 1991 by longtime friends Sarmiento and the Casapao brothers. All recent graduates of Clear Lake High School, they promptly got busy on the fringes of Houston's thriving early-'90s neo-funk movement, which included such regionally popular acts as Global Village, Beat Temple and Ten Hands.

"We all had long hair and played heavy metal at one time," Sarmiento admits.
Edwin quickly interjects, "But you don't really hear that anymore."
In 1992, the band released a five-song cassette to satiate its growing cluster of fans, many of whom still attend Phuz shows. Since then, the band has had to settle for an on-and-off public persona, as band members came and left and its core members pursued degrees at the University of Houston -- Sarmiento in psychology and the Casapao siblings in engineering. When the group couldn't find a decent guitarist, Sarmiento stepped in and percussionist Edward Casapao shifted to the drum kit. More recently, the group filled out its sound with vocalists Courtney (another high school pal) and Chincuanco (the sister of a friend). Now, after a long, patchy seven years, Phuz feels fully evolved.

"We haven't been out there in a while," says Sarmiento.
Chincuanco concurs: "It's been kind of hard [on] some of our followers."
But Phuz would like to think that fickle strategy might do the group some good in the end. "We've kind of held our own," Edwin Casapao says. "Now we just want to be heard."

Phuz performs Saturday, September 19, as part of the Houstonpolyglot Records showcase with the Jeepneys and Lavendula at Instant Karma, 1617 Richmond. Doors open at 8 p.m. Cover is $7; $5, 21 and up. For info, call 528-3545.


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